Thursday was School Picture Day, which often means a day of interruptions. “Ms. X’s class, please report for pictures at this time,” comes over the intercom system, over and over again. For Ms. X and Mr. Y, who hate interruptions, it must be maddening. It certainly used to be for me, back when I saw class time and activities as something to, or possibly for students, a series of experiences carefully crafted by Me The Teacher that would automatically – or automagically – make them learn or make them understand as they proceeded through the sequence “in the right order” and “at the right pace.”
I moved from to to for fairly quickly, back when I was a young teacher. But I stayed stuck in for for a long time. As I look back, even at last year’s blog posts, and think about times when we all were frustrated, I can see how closely connected those frustrations were with my desire to do things for students rather than with them.
Picture Day wasn’t frustrating this year – not at all. I knew we’d be called at an unpredictable, possibly inconvenient time during the larger Latin I class … so we took most of the time to finish making our Minor Assessment projects. I was briefly concerned about one group who seemed to be struggling, especially when Powers That Be called for a few of them to “report to the office” … but something prompted me not to go over there and “intervene,” not to check in with them about how they were doing, until they’d had a chance to get themselves focused. And then, just when I least expected it, B and T asked me a profound question and showed me what they’d accomplished. That happened again, with the other group I’d been concerned about – and it struck me, once again, that ownership of the process is vital. If you know what needs to be done and when it needs to be finished, you can structure how you do it in ways that work for you. If it’s the how and the when that are important, you need to have control over what you make. And it really helps when there’s someone working with you, not for you, along the way.
Picture Day was also unusually short. Sometimes it drags on all day, with calls for classes during their lunch times and desperate “this is the last call for any ninth-graders who haven’t yet been photographed” messages as the day draws to an end. This year, though, everything was done by mid-morning. No interruptions for the upper-level class! K, who could have joined us but “didn’t need the credit” and doesn’t have a full-day schedule, asked if she could sit with us for a while. Of course, I said, as long as you are an asset and not a distraction. And she was an amazing asset … but not in the way I’d expected.
Most of “the thirteen,” as I called them in yesterday’s post, are seniors, and they seemed unusually distracted, distressed, and anxious. They hurried through their assignments, desperate for an opportunity to talk about something … but they didn’t seem to want to talk about the Big Thing, whatever it was. They’re with me for a while, have lunch, and return for a while longer thanks to a scheduling quirk – and that break really helps both us most days. (But Ms. X and Mr. Y “hate split lunches,” of course, because “the kids won’t get focused and do their work” or because they “get interrupted in the middle of something every time.”)
K hadn’t been a “perfect” asset before lunch; people wanted to talk to her, and she wanted to talk to them, and she forgot there were other things they needed to do. So I reminded her about our earlier conversation – and she snapped at me, seeming eager for an argument. “K, you seem really stressed!” I eventually said – and then she told me about the Huge Task that’s making her feel stressed, upset, and unfocused. It’s a Huge Task for all of our seniors, a lengthy capstone project in an area of personal interest, with presentations and service learning and all kinds of great things. But it’s totally different from anything they’ve done before, and naturally there’s no time during the school day … and Ms. X and Mr. Y, with their worksheet packets and definitions to copy, take up the after-school and weekend hours. “They need to get ready for college” – that’s the explanation and excuse, of course. But shouldn’t getting ready include building the skills?
Senior after senior told me about work schedules, extra-curricular commitments, jobs they must have to pay for things they need. One after another, they told me about time they don’t have … and how no one has ever helped them with time management. “You should know how to do that already,” says Ms. X, “and I don’t have time for that nonsense; there’s too much to cover.” So they struggle and flounder in the name of “preparation.” And U is terrified for a close relative, who’s slowly fading away from an incurable and progressive disease. B and B have no idea where to start; they’ve always been told what to do and how to do it, ever since kindergarten, except in the Latin Family.
K, I’m not sure when (or even if) you’ll read this, but thank you! You really were an asset to us yesterday! Had it not been for your presence, we wouldn’t have had that huge, important conversation, and I’d still be fretting about how to make things better for the thirteen. But thanks to you, we can work with each other to craft a real solution, to build something meaningful together.
I wonder what it will look like and what else we’ll all learn from – and with – each other today!